Update on Bovine TB

Handling my father’s cows reminded me of what political choice is
really like. We were trying to get an enraged and terrified young
Highland bull into a cattle crush. Its predecessor had gone in the
first time. But this one kept breaking free.  When he was almost
trapped he retreated and bucked, roared and rolled, turned and
charged, (while my ninety year old father staggered aside from the
broad slashing horns), and then, finally, leaped, hooked its front
legs above the five foot rail and dragged itself over the side of the
crush. Testing and injecting cattle is time consuming, can be
dangerous for the humans, (we have had fatalities in Cumbria
recently), and terrifying and risky for the animals. The day was a
reminder for me of why almost no farmer would support compulsory
annual testing for bovine TB. And yet, I may have to press for such

Almost nothing matters more for Cumbria than preventing endemic bovine
TB. Gloucestershire and Cornwall, where a third of farms are infected
and hundreds of herds are killed, show us life with the disease.  The
compensation is never enough, businesses are wiped out and the effect
is emotionally terrible because herds, carefully bred and built up
over years, are murdered. Cattle prices in infected areas can be a
third lower than in a clean area, auction marts cease to trade, and
everyone else who depends on farmers, from feed merchants to milk
processors, from fencers to agricultural contractors, suffer. But
Gloucestershire is on the edge of the London commuter belt, with many
other income streams. Cumbria is the dairy field of England, the
genetic livestock treasure of Britain; it is three hundred miles from
London and farming is one of the two largest parts of our economy.
Endemic bovine TB could destroy Cumbrian rural communities, families,
our economy – and thousands of livelihoods.

And unless we act soon, it will. Every year more TB infected cattle
come into our county, partly because the tests are not accurate,
partly because you can ‘link’ a holding in an infected area hundreds
of miles away to one in a clean area of Cumbria. Under current rules
it can be four years before you test a cow.  Four years is a long
time: long enough for a TB cow not just to infect the rest of the
herd, or spread across fences into neighbouring herds, but most
importantly, long enough to infect wildlife – badgers and deer. And it
if gets into our wildlife it would spread rapidly, many miles across
the county: it would become endemic.

What is the solution? We don’t know. But one solution could be to
implement universal annual TB testing across Britain. This is what we
did after the War and it eliminated TB. But even if annual testing
could save us, politicians would be very reluctant to push for it,
because farmers would hate it. It would anger farmers who are already
fed up with testing, restrictions and paperwork, and who have been
promised less not more bureaucracy. And, as I was reminded when
handling my father’s bull, testing is tricky, time-consuming, and
sometimes violent.

So instead politicians have fallen back, and may continue to
fall-back, on half-measures: things which may be helpful, but which
are insufficient. We might call for a live data-base to give more
information on a cow’s real-time movements and health; or for
education; or for an end to linked holdings; or for eradication of
badgers. But Cumbrian badgers don’t yet have TB. And a live-movement
database would take years to construct and would only record the
location and health of the cow. This – and an end to linked holdings –
would help farmers to know exactly what they were buying, but the
tests could still be inaccurate or out of date, and under the current
system it could still be a long time before you detected infection.
Nor are there the resources for a huge educational programme on TB,
including bringing farmers from infected areas to share their
experience. And many farmers will never be convinced that the threat
in Cumbria is real, or that annual testing is essential: yesterday
someone told me it was all a plot by vets – ‘jobs for the boys’. What
reason is there to think we are finally going to go beyond these
half-measures, and do what it takes – however unpopular – to prevent
Cumbria from being crippled by endemic bovine TB?

The banking regulators saw the risk of what the banks were doing in
2007, and realised that we were flirting with catastrophe. But they
did nothing, because imposing more checks, tests and regulation would
have enraged all banks, and some businesses; would have been costly;
and might have slowed short-term economic growth. If a politician had
taken the plunge, risked the anger of the banks, and succeeded in
preventing the crisis, no-one would have been grateful – because
no-one would have ever seen what might have happened, or been able to
prove it would have occurred.  I’m not sure that I would have done the
right thing on banks, but with the benefit of hindsight, we should
have done. I hope we can now do the right thing – however unpopular –
on bovine TB.

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